By Mel Mann
In case you missed it, President Biden just finished his first 100 days in the oval office. This milestone is normally scrutinized by the press and pundits. Agenda is analyzed along with executive orders and public appearances. For most of the last 30 years new Presidents have used this window to promote their agenda and begin securing their legacy. Clearly, President Trump excelled at dominating the news cycle. Uniquely, Biden’s first one hundred days may be more aptly measured as a snoozefest.
In the previous administration we would have already seen Twitter light up numerous times with late night rants and a headline or two about a MAGA (Make America Great Again) rally. Initially it would be easy to ask the question “where is Biden.” Clearly, President Biden has not been taking questions and has not visited any place that is controversial. It would be easy to jump to that conclusion that his presidency will be a lot like his campaign, very low key. Obviously, anything on a stage opposite Donald Trump may appear to be low key. Our former President did have a knack for making himself the center of attention.
The expectation appears to have been that Joe Biden, at 78 years old would be a transitional president. Removing the selfish component from being President, he would lower the political temperature. Were it not for the pandemic, the economic rally of Trump’s first three years would have been hard for any candidate to run against. Perceived as a moderate, Joe Biden is expected to help heal a divided nation. Along the way he could drain a little of the poison out of the body politics and take the credit for a vaccine roll-out that he inherited. To this point he has also appointed a technocratic and liberal cabinet to no one’s surprise.
It does appear as though the policies coming from the oval office are attempting to be more transformational than transitional. Whether these agenda items are truly his, or others around him is unclear. We won’t know the truth on who is really in charge until a couple of years from now when a White House staffer writes a behind closed doors tell-all-book.
The $1.9 trillion stimulus package is supposed to provide nearly all adult Americans with a check for $1,400 to help them cope with the hardships brought on by the pandemic. This legislation won massive approval from Democratic and Republican voters alike, although not a single Republican lawmaker supported the proposal. Included in this package is a child tax credit for poorer families of up to $3,000. This measure is supposed to lift millions of youngsters out of poverty. Currently, this measure is for 2021 only, but the White House wants to make this permanent.
The stimulus package, or the American Rescue Package, as it is more properly titled, is something the Biden administration is clearly taking credit for. It seems a good time to point out that nearly $1.0 trillion remains unspent from the previous stimulus funding efforts as scored by the CBO (Congressional Budget Office). Regardless, President Biden clearly wants to correct something he felt that Barack Obama had got wrong when he came to power inheriting the financial crisis in 2009. Yes, Obama passed a variety of measures, but with hindsight they were seen as too cautious by most of the advisors in his inner circle.
Not wanting to repeat these missteps, Biden seems focused on exceeding Obama’s legacy by not letting a good crisis go to waste. The urgency of the pandemic has given Biden the excuse he needed to push for a massive stimulus plan and successfully get it through regardless of how thin the margin.
At President Biden’s first address to Congress he outlined proposals to expand family leave, child care, health care, pre-school and college education for millions. He also outlined a $2 trillion infrastructure plan calling it a “once-in-a-generation investment in America itself.” He went on to refer to all this as the largest jobs plan since World War II. While our roads and bridges need repair along with expending equitable digital access…this may be a price tag too much, even with slight Democratic margins in Congress. If he could get all this passed, his legacy might well be that of a transformational figure. Of greater concern is on detailed review, how little of the $2 trillion is actually allocated to infrastructure as opposed to other pet programs and initiatives.
On the subject of climate, he shared his agreement from a virtual international summit to cut emissions by 52% before the end of the decade. If true, it brings into question how much we would really need all those expensively repaired roads and bridges. Who knows whether any of this is realistic? It would require Americans to change the way they drive; the way they heat and cool their homes. The way industry functions. We currently sell about 17 million new cars and trucks of all types in America every year with about 280 million vehicles actively on the road. The numbers alone imply needing to make 40 million electric vehicles a year to meet this goal which is just not going to happen. But Presidential speeches are often about ambition.
For Republicans it’s typical government overreach and smacks more of social engineering than the civic kind usually associated with highway repairs. Who knows whether he’ll achieve this. Maybe this is about aiming high in order to negotiate for something less.
In truth, there is something slightly ridiculous about the focus on the first 100 days of a presidency. Maybe it is better to think of the first 100 days as a statement of intent, a down payment on what you might do with the rest of your term. Frankly, who cares if you have a sparkling first 100 days if the subsequent 1,360 stink?
Nevertheless, the statement of intent is big, and this is what makes boring old Joe Biden, or the people pulling his strings so interesting. But all of this is realistically a very hard sell.
The dominant idea in American politics for the past 40 years has been the low-taxing, economy-deregulating, budget-balancing, competition-encouraging, union-limiting small government of Ronald Reagan though few budgets were balanced and government is really not that small. Despite there being Clinton and Obama on the liberal side since Reagan, they have only chipped away fractionally at his legacy.
The same is true of the influence of Thatcherism in the UK. There have been 13 years of Labor government since Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing, but economic policies are still dominated by her legacy. Arguably, the US and the UK operate within the orthodoxy of the monetarist economists who’ve held such intellectual sway on both sides of the Atlantic including Milton Friedman, the Chicago school, Laffer curves, Sir Alan Walters, etc.
If Obama’s rescue package didn’t go far enough, that was likely because he was looking at the growing power of the conservative Tea Party movement. Both Clinton and Blair saw their paths to victory through the elusive “third way” where free-market economic liberalism is served with a big dollop of concern for the least well off. In the 1980s US Democrats and the UK Labor party suffered major defeats. Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair came to believe firmly that tax-raising and big government pledges would not reverse that trend.
Joe Biden – for better or worse – looks like he is using the pandemic and the woeful state of America’s infrastructure to unapologetically say to the American people “yep, big government is back”. This is a big break and represents a significant gamble early in his administration that Republican opponents are experienced at fighting on.
All this will have to happen while pretending there is no chaos at the southern border, the perennial issues of gun control and racism. Given the fine balance of the Senate, it may only be a lot of huffing and puffing. Obviously, the general population appears to be as divided as the Senate making any big policy initiative difficult to sell as a public mandate.
At about the 60 day mark on his presidency, Joe Biden hosted a sit-down with a group of presidential historians. At this stage of his presidency, Biden was already thinking about his legacy and what he needed to do; what was the limit of presidential power; what lessons could he learn from his predecessors? After some discussion it was noted that he turned to one of these scholars, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and says “I’m no FDR, but… “. Perhaps Joe Biden is eyeing this as his moment to deliver a New Deal à la Franklin Delano Roosevelt following the Great Depression, or the war on poverty and fight against racial inequality that was championed in the 1960s by Lyndon B Johnson. Of course, with the huge national debt we are currently carrying, it is difficult to imagine Congress allowing government to get much bigger than it already is.
Regardless, the theatre of Donald Trump seems behind us. Main stream media doesn’t seem to have anyone to kick around. When President Biden does make himself available, the questions tossed his way are clearly softballs and his handlers are shielding from any impromptu situations.
Most of us live our lives day-to-day attempting to pay our bills and hopefully go out to eat once in a great while. The antics of our politicians, whether from the left or the right often appear grossly disconnected from our daily challenges. From a purely selfish point of view, the made-for-TV spectacular that was Donald Trump always came with a new and outrageous twist. The remaining flavors of reality television now that Joe Biden is President just don’t excite me, I guess I’ll have to start watching baseball.
Mel Mann currently works as a software developer as well as dabbling in playing the blue grass banjo.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal